Back to basics: Hoover resolidifies approach to reclaim old form

Cincinnati Reds' pitcher J.J. Hoover warms up as a clock counts down time between innings during Tuesday's spring training game.

John Locher/AP

GOODYEAR, AZ. — If J.J. Hoover could eradicate his record from 2015, get into Major League Baseball’s statistical date base and make his numbers float away into cyberspace, well, how much would that cost?

He certainly would do it because a 1-10 record with a 4.88 earned run average is as ugly as it gets on a pitcher’s resume, especially a relief pitcher.

So, when Hoover faced the Cleveland Indians Tuesday in the spring exhibition opener for the Cincinnati Reds and gave up hits to his first two batters, the first responders said, "Oh, oh. Same ol’ Hoover. Here we go again."

And then he struck out the side, struck out the next three Indians and then the comments were, "Oh, maybe there is a new J.J. Hoover."

J.J. doesn’t want to be a new J.J. He just wants to be the Hoover he was in 2012 (1-0 in 26 appearances with a 2.05 ERA) or the Hoover he was in 2013 (5-5 in 69 appearances with a 2.86 ERA).

"It wasn’t bad, good for the first time out, something to build on," said Hoover of his first spring fling.

There are some things Hoover needs to show manager Bryan Price and his staff about his 2015 approach. Mostly he needs to pitch inside more to left handed hitters and Price said he did that Tuesday.

"J.J. was too one-sided with the ball last year," said Price. "He was down-and-away to left handers and down and away to right handers on his curveball. There was a great concern to covering the inside strike. He needed to throw an 0-and-1 pitch on the hands to left handers."

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Those two hits Hoover gave up Tuesday were to left handers and Price said, "The first one was out over the plate with two strikes and a lefty shot it the other way. Then he had two strikes on the next left hander and tried to elevate up and away and he hit it.

"The left handers were the hitters who gave him the most trouble last year, hit him at a high rate and he is going to have to establish the inside of the plate, especially to left handers, to get back to being as effective as he was in year’s past," said Price.

It has been that way for all his career. While right handers only hit him for a .177 average, left handers have banged him around at a .387 clip.

"And his overall percentage on first-pitch strikes last year was much lower than we were accustomed from seeing from him," Price added. "More first-pitch strikes help get him back to where he was."

Hoover is working diligently to smooth things out and he started in the off-season by reconfiguring his body. He didn’t lose any of his 215 pounds but he redistributed the poundage.

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"I combined working hard in the offseason, which I always did, with healthy eating," he said. And he became a chef, but not like Guy Fieri on "Drive-Ins, Diners and Dives." Hoover leaned toward lean foods and said, "I cooked a lot of dinners at my house and it seems to be paying dividends."

He gave credit to Sean Marohn, the team’s strength and conditioning guru, "For putting a program together for me. I feel like I did in the past when things went well. I did more yoga this winter and more speed and agility work. I feel as if I have better control of my body."

And now he needs better control of his pitches and better control of his situations on the mound.

"I never found a consistency last year that I’ve had in the past," said the 6-foot-3 right hander from Pittsburgh. "It was a struggle all year, but I battled through. I know it wasn’t a year that people wanted to see and it wasn’t a year I wanted to see. But I learned from it and it will help me the next time I encounter a struggle. It will happen again. It happens to all of us."

Besides some impatient fans who wanted Hoover put on a sloop to the East Indies, how was it for him?

"It stinks because I was trying to do the job for the team," he said. "When your name is called you want to do the job and I wasn’t able to do that as efficiently as I had in the past."

What Hoover took away from his year-long nightmare was this: "The next time it happens I think I know how to shorten it. After getting back to the basics of my delivery this offseason it kind of resolidified my approach. I got my old delivery back through drills and bullpens and I have a feeling it will be easier to find if I do lose it."

What he really wants, though, it not to lose it all. He wants to perform at maximum efficiency when his name is called. He knows his team needs it and expects it.